On this day in 1988, Robert Heinlein died. I was ten; I hadn’t yet read any of his books or realized that the label “science fiction” was going to sort out a lot of the books I wanted to read. I’ve run into blog posts lately either claiming that Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today (apparently because of the bad bad liberal politics of the field?) or refuting that claim pretty effectively (either on the grounds of non-uniformity of politics of the field or on the idea that Heinlein would not have stood still as a writer or both).
But I was thinking about Heinlein’s life influences, and look. If Heinlein was of an age to still be reasonably alive and writing today–say, if he was my age, even–he would have gone to an integrated Annapolis. His Navy would have been racially integrated, and it would have been gender integrated, not as an event, but for his entire life. As something he would have taken for granted. And for all the back and forth about how enlightened he was for his time, or was not, depending on which side you take, it changes a person to have their formative educational/professional experience segregated that way. He managed to fight against those assumptions some, as good people of his generation did. But the formative experience was like that.
I just keep thinking about this stuff as a young friend of mine approaches her physics undergrad degree, nearly twenty years after I started mine. At the good liberal arts colleges around here, the places where she applied, physics majors are pretty routinely a third women now. A third! Can you imagine? I can’t. I honestly can’t. I get a lump in my throat thinking about all the other varied young people she’ll have around her while she learns. Why, it’ll be like…it’ll be like….
Shit, it’ll be like being a science fiction writer.
I look back at my early writing, when I was coming out of that life, and how natural Smurfette casting still felt. I look at how often I wrote just one significant female character not just in short stories with small casts but in longer works–not all the time, but often. Because that was my life. Not all the time. But often. And I was the girl. Smurfette was me. Princess Leia was me. Think how much easier it would have been not to bounce back from it, not to reach for the women influences from the rest of my life, the entire tapestry of influences from the rest of my life, if I had been in that environment as a guy. If I’d lived that life and come out of that life and when there was only one girl in my class it was someone outside my own skin. And then think if there were no girls at all, inside my own skin or not. I think people often misread this as “I want to have a message to have X women in things as a quota,” when in fact I mean: it was really broken to have things draw from that lopsided a pool, and the rest of life is not that broken, and I don’t want my stories to feel that broken. I want to be able to reach for the world and have the whole world there to reach for. And when you’ve been in that segregated an environment, you’re reaching for the world with only one arm, and that arm’s got a pulled muscle in the shoulder and a broken wrist.
The Naval Academy is still 4:1, male:female. But when there was no ratio, it had to have affected him. Had to. The idea that “if Robert Heinlein was writing today” would result in anything even remotely like what we saw–I mean, even aside from the Great Depression, World War II, the existence of SF as a maturing field, anything like that. Just thinking about where and how he did his education. Guys, you can’t change just one thing. You can’t pick people up and put them down in history. “If your grandfather was alive to see this,” we say, and with our grandfathers, with the artists who are the ages of our grandfathers or our great-grandfathers, we have the delusion that we could just keep them going as they were, without having them change with the triumphs and the setbacks and all the things that happen in a life, because their lives were somewhat close to ours. We don’t bother to say, “If Rembrandt was alive today, could he win a Chesley Award?”, because we’re more aware of the remove. But the remove is still there. It doesn’t make excuses. It does make changes. It does make differences.
It’s up to us to make them good ones. It’s up to us to build on those differences. My God, a third of her classmates women! I think that’s an expanded universe we can all believe in, regardless of what we think of Robert Heinlein’s Hugo chances.